THE SUMMER BOOK
In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice,
In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.
Tove Jansson, whose Moomintroll comic strip and books brought her international acclaim, lived for much of her life on an island like the one described in The Summer Book, and the work can be enjoyed as her closely observed journal of the sounds, sights, and feel of a summer spent in intimate contact with the natural world.
- NYRB Classics
- May 2008
- 184 Pages
“Tove Jansson was a genius. This is a marvelous, beautiful, wise novel, which is also very funny.” — Philip Pullman
“[Jansson’s] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.” — Ali Smith
“This slim, magical, life-affirming novel tells the story of a young girl and her grandmother, who spend their summer together on a small, isolated island in the Gulf of Finland. Absent of sentimentality, full of love and humor and wisdom, this is a tale about how much fun two people can have in the middle of nowhere, when they are practicing social isolation in earnest.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The New York Times
“The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting—I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light”—allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.” —Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions
“Jansson’s clear prose — capable of sentiment without being sentimental — contains multitudes. The Summer Book is bright but dense; it is slim enough to read in a day but holds a whole world between its covers.” —Powell’s Books
1. We hear that Sophia’s mother is dead only in passing, in chapter 2 (page 9). Did you find yourself thinking about that throughout the book? How does it underlie specific details of Sophia’s behavior, or the overall feel of the story? Why do you think Jansson (or the characters) doesn’t talk about it more? Jansson also waited until after chapter 1 to reveal this important information: why would she choose to do it that way? How would chapter 1 have been different if we had known about Sophia’s mother?
2. The book is filled with beautiful descriptions of things on the island. “It was pretty and mysterious” (pages 5–6) is one of the first descriptions, and also a good description of the book as a whole. Do you think of The Summer Book as a kind of island, or a summer vacation? Do you react to it similarly to how Sophia reacts to things?
3. Which are your favorites of the games that Sophia and Grandmother play together? Did you play any games or do activities like that when you were a child? Was there anyone in your life like Grandmother?
4. The Summer Book is about an important summer in Sophia’s life, of course, but it is also a story about an important summer in Grandmother’s life. How does the book seem different when you look at it from that angle? What is the arc of the story from Grandmother’s point of view?
5. Is Papa a good father? Sophia says, “I like it when he’s working…I always know he’s there” (page 138). He is almost always working, and never says anything; we hear about him mostly from Grandmother, who describes a lot of his rules. Is he a good son to Grandmother?
6. Jansson is wonderfully wise about the different ways in which Grandmother and Sophia see the world: Grandmother tends to track and observe things, while Sophia tends to forget—for example, the blade of grass with seabird down (pages 22–23). Sophia also projects her feelings outward; for example, she asks Grandmother, “You won’t be sad now, will you?” to keep from feeling sad herself (page 50). Do you think these habits are specific to Sophia and Grandmother, or true of adults and children in general?
7. Sophia experiences unrequited love for Moppy the cat: “It’s funny about love…The more you love someone, the less he likes you back” (page 54). She trades Moppy for Fluff,who is much more affectionate, but in the end she wants Moppy back. Do you think Sophia is being childish, or is Jansson using the story to express something true about adults as well?
8. “Her children sprang up…so nothing changed” is part of the description of a rosebush(page 62). Is that true of the family in the book? Do you think Sophia will be like Grandmother when she is older? Why or why not?
9. Does the story of Eriksson, the “friend who never came too close” (page 70), make you see the family relationships differently? What about Verner, or the new neighbor whose house they break into? Grandmother is concerned about Sophia’s manners, but later thinks: “No. I’m certainly not nice. The best you could say of me is that I’m interested”(page 151). Do you think this is really true? Is Grandmother “nice”?
10. During a fight, Sophia writes to her Grandmother: “‘I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.’ All the words were correctly spelled” (page 129). Why does Sophia respond that way, and why does Jansson mention Sophia’s spelling? What is Grandmother angry or depressed about in this scene, and how much of that do you think Sophia understands?
11. What do you think of Sophia’s book A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart? What is it really about, and how does having Sophia write it let Jansson express a different side of Sophia’s character? How does it compare to Berenice’s drawing (pages33–34)?
12. What do you think of the drawings in The Summer Book? Do they make it feel more like a children’s book, or is this a kind of adult book that drawings belong in? In general, do you think of this book as a book for adults or for children? What’s the difference?